Lena Galing and a fuzzy bundle of legs topped with a puffball head struck a pose on the porch of the Farm Store that is tucked beside the pasture fence of Lippencott Alpacas. It’s a sunny day, but the chill of winter is settling in. All the more reason to stop by and pick up a season’s worth of socks for hunting, or a felted seat warmer for the Friday night game. Or maybe buy that incredibly soft sweater hanging over there, or look through racks of rainbow skeins to find what you need to make it yourself.
Plus, as anyone who drops by knows, half the fun of shopping here is getting to meet someone as adorable as Glacier.
“If we’re home, we’re open, so call first so we don’t’ miss you,” Galing warns cheerfully as she returns Glacier to his mom, rebolts the gate and says hello to the pair of Great Pyrenees guard dogs mingling with the herd peering over the fence, waiting for a pat.
Yes, alpacas enjoy being scratched under the chin. They also step out of the way politely when you ask them.
Friendly, polite, easy to raise and downright adorable are just some of the qualities that drew Lena and her husband, Phil Galing, to try their hand at raising alpacas for their highly-prized fleece in 2003.
But getting back to the land on the Hawkins family farm was a journey of nearly 30 years for this world-traveling couple.
The old Bell farm on Meadowbrook Road near Lippencott that her great-grandfather Joseph Hawkins bought after the Civil War once raised everything a family needed, plus some cash crops, Galing points out. “This is a Century Farm and I’m fourth generation. We came to the farm after retirement in 2001, only planning to stay six weeks to six months then go to other states and other areas. We were ready to leave, but then my dad gave Phil a heifer calf named Pricilla …”
Galing still remembers Lippencott the way it used to be, when the blacksmith shop along Route 221 was open and her grade school was the brick building that is now Open Door Christian School. Her father, James Hawking, and his nine siblings walked to the one-room schoolhouse that is shrouded in overgrowth but still standing near the Cox Farm covered bridge.
“Dad taught science and biology at Beth Center and then Trinity, plus was a full-time farmer. He retired from teaching in 1986 and was still farming when we came home. I grew up here, but I never dreamed I’d be back!”
She and her fraternal twin Dora Lynne were like “peas in a pod” in high school and were sorority sisters, sharing books at California State College. After graduating with a degree in elementary education in 1973, “I subbed for one and a half years but couldn’t find a job, so Dora Lynne and I headed for York County, Va., where there was work.”
After five years as an elementary teacher, a position in the Department of Defense offered this farm girl an irresistible opportunity to see the world. Galing applied and soon found herself teaching fourth grade to soldiers’ kids at an Army base in Schweinfurt, Germany. It was a world of picturesque towns, high mountains and skiing parties waiting to be enjoyed by those who lived on base.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to marry a military man. But then I met 1st Lt. Phil Galing and I fell! Within a year, we were married.”
Galing points to a photograph of a mountain range that hangs in her store. “That was the view from my office window in Garmisch, Germany. We were there for three years at the end of our tour and I loved it.”
For 20-some years, the Galings lived the life of a military family – back to the states to be stationed in Georgia, Virginia, Texas and California, before returning to Stuttgart, then to Garmisch, Germany. By now, Phil had his masters degree in engineering and Lena, with a masters degree in education, had taught English as a Second Language to adults and was a well-seasoned traveler, assigned to help new Army recruits settle in or pack to move to another deployment.
When retirement came, the Galings came back to the Hawkins farm and found Lena’s dad raising cattle and baling hay in his retirement years. They pitched in to help for a season, and then Pricilla showed up.
“Phil basically fell in love with her,” Galing says.
For the next two years, the couple put their military efficiency to good use, learning the ins and outs of raising cattle and operating a roast chicken concession truck at festivals on the side. “Roast chicken was a big hit in Germany, so Phil thought we could do it here.”
Business had its highs and lows, depending on the festival and the weather, and the whole operation eventually proved to be too much work for two people, Galing admits. When Pricilla died delivering her second calf, the sad event marked the beginning of a new day for the Galing retirement plan.
“Braden Run vet Anita McMillen came out to take care of Pricilla, and she said ‘why don’t you start raising alpacas?’ and gave us a brochure. I forget what I did with it, but then in May we went to the first Sheep and Fiber Festival in Waynesburg. I ran into a woman who had two alpacas and I just fell in love with that face! Phil did the numbers on the profits of raising alpacas versus cattle and alpacas won out. By November, we bought our first five girls. We came to the next festival as vendors, and by the third year we were invited to be on the board.”
The pastures on the old Harkins farm are now studded with alpacas – white, black and a dozen shades of fawn to brown and grey in between. Shoppers, knitters and carloads of school kids come here to take hayrides, take classes, attend seminars to learn the ropes of alpaca farming, pet those friendly fuzzy faces and shop the “everything alpaca” that is sold at the Farm Store.
“We’ve been breeding up to get the best fiber,” Galing pushes apart the thick soft fleece on one of “her girls” to show where the beige coloration stopped and crinkly white began. “Look here. The brown is dirt and where it stops shows the density of the fleece. The less depth, the better the fiber. The best quality is called baby, not because it’s infant, but because it is the finest.”
Raising alpacas was almost unheard of outside of Peru until the craze for exotic animals brought them out of the Andes and into the heartland – and the heart – of America in 1983. Prices were astronomical in those early days and some prizewinning animals cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now a pet alpaca – usually an older male or female past prime fiber production – can be had for $100, and a good fiber grade animal can be found for less than $1,000, Galing notes.
“We got into alpacas when prices were high, then the bubble burst in 2008. It’s a good business to get in now because the product is more affordable and the public loves the warmth and feel. Did you know Abraham Lincoln’s campaign coat was made of alpaca? It is incredibly warm because alpacas are from the Andes. Living at our altitude is like a vacation for them. Alpaca are now officially recognized as livestock, not exotic, which helps with getting farm loans and taking advantage of other benefits.”
Back inside the shop, Galing points to the machine that knits the double walled toboggans so prized by hunters and outdoor workers. “We make our own hats and I have a serger for finishing edges. Our fleece goes to the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool Coop, and we get back the amount we send for lower than wholesale price. My best baby fibers I send to Stramba Mills in New Castle to be made into skeins that are dyed or are left natural. Some of the best fleece I keep for myself to spin my own yarn, because for me that’s the best satisfaction – from the animal I love to the clothing that I wear.”